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Evii Tong

Science/Data Team
Research Assistant (RA)
Cohen Lab, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Tell us about your work/research. What kinds of things do you do?

I am a research assistant in my lab and I am involved in many tasks to support our coral reef research and activities. Including coding, fieldwork, data analysis, sample collection, instruments deployment, diving etc. I personally enjoy fieldwork being underwater doing coral reef monitoring, and benthic survey. I specialized in the coral taxa, underwater photography/videography, drone imagery & coral cores analysis and that is the analysis of coral skeleton. Our lab at WHOI collect a lot of coral cores (skeleton) and we use 3D CAT Scans so that we can quantify the coral growth back in time using the CT Images of our coral cores. The cores can also tells us the age of the colony that we collected our samples from, it can also tells us about the bleaching history and what year it bleached. It tells us how severe the bleaching is, and that is relatively to mortality scars, meaning the coral died during that period, and this can be seen in the CT Image. I have looked at cores from Caribbean and the Pacific including Marshall Islands but I am primarily focusing on The Southern Line Islands cores in Kiribati.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

As an indigenous person from Kiribati, a large ocean state in the central Pacific, the ocean is essential to our way of life as I-Kiribati. It holds a deep spiritual connection for me, which led me to pursue a career in marine science. When I left for high school in New Zealand in 2016 and returned in 2018, I was shocked to see a significant decline in marine biodiversity, including corals and fish, while spearfishing. The once vibrant and enjoyable experience of fishing as a young boy had changed drastically. Initially, I never considered going to college, my focus being to live a peaceful, sustainable indigenous lifestyle. However, witnessing the degradation of our marine ecosystem during my absence prompted me to seek answers. I wanted to understand if these changes were natural, when the next ones might occur, and how I could contribute to saving our marine environment for future generations in Kiribati. Driven by this purpose, I applied for scholarships and made the difficult decision to leave my family once again, this time to study in the US. Here, I am gaining valuable scientific knowledge and quantitative skills. My ultimate goal is to return home with the highest possible degree and utilize my expertise to blend scientific understanding with indigenous knowledge in marine conservation efforts. I aspire to bridge the gap between the worlds of science and tradition, aiming to safeguard our marine ecosystem for a better future. I strive to create a world where others can also cherish and benefit from a healthy, vibrant marine environment.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

My grandparents, my Ma and Pa, often share their fishing trips stories with me, recounting their experiences and adventures. Hearing about their journey has inspired me to want to be part of it and live through similar experiences. Their tales of love for the ocean and blessings is what encourage me to be curious, understand and wanting to learn more about the ocean, and how traditional knowledge is connected to the ocean. This has also encourage and shape my desire to create my own stories so that I can pass it on as an inspiration to my children and fellow young I-Kiribati.

What element of your work/study do you think is the most fascinating?

I can confidently say that the most valuable aspect of my work is engaging with individuals from diverse institutions, backgrounds, cultures, traditions, and backgrounds, all sharing their ocean-related stories and experiences. I genuinely believe that people are the cornerstone of my work, as they not only facilitate my learning and personal growth but also offer their support in helping me accomplish my goals. However, the most exhilarating experience in my career was collaborating with National Geographic Pristine Seas and participating in a submersible data collection mission. In 2023, I had the honor of being invited by Pristine Seas to join an expedition to Kiribati, where my role involved collecting data in a submersible at depths ranging from 300 to 400 meters. During this expedition, I had the opportunity to observe deep-sea habitats, conduct fish surveys, and explore the ocean's depths. Our team conducted two dives per day, each lasting approximately 3 to 4 hours, totaling 15 dives, of which I participated in 12. Working with National Geographic has always been a dream of mine, and I aspire to become a National Geographic Explorer, potentially being the first from Kiribati. It is possible that I may have been the first I-Kiribati individual to venture into a submersible and lead a scientific expedition in my own country in collaboration with National Geographic. Reflecting on the submersible dives, I found the experience incredibly serene, and I discovered my preference for being submerged in the deep ocean depths.

How did you get involved with the Ocean Exploration Trust?

I was invited to attend a workshop at Scripps with my supervisor, Dr. Anne Cohen, focusing on the Death and Resilience of coral reefs in The Southern Line Islands, particularly in Kiribati. During the workshop, we explored thought-provoking questions about coral reef recovery rates worldwide, leading us to discuss Jarvis Atoll. Dr. Cohen expressed curiosity about the current state of coral reefs there because no one has been there since 2018 so she reached out to Dr. Enric Sala, who mentioned that the Ocean Exploration Trust was planning an expedition to Jarvis Atoll in July. Scripps have no one available and I was honored to be picked for this amazing scientific journey. Despite I was gonna be in Belize leading the coring team. While I was unfamiliar with the Ocean Exploration Trust at first, I conducted some research and discovered the incredible work they do in mapping the ocean floor and conducting various scientific endeavors. And I am grateful for this amazing opportunity, and also finding out the Dr Daniel has also worked in Kiribati on a different project really makes me feel welcomed and looking forward to learn and grow from this amazing science expedition.

What other jobs led you to your current career?

I used to work in Hawaii during summer break as a deckhand and sharing my stories and traditional knowledge to our guests and then I became Dr Greg Stone's assistant and I had the opportunity to join him on a cruise to The Galapagos Islands in 2021. Where it was a eye opening for me to see the capacity of local people leading the whole cruise and be the scientist and field experts for their land and ocean. Just the amount of knowledge and stories they tell was truly inspiring for me. And this motivates me because if they can use their voices and expertise to tell the stories to the guests, I believe I can do it as well for Kiribati. I want my people from Kiribati to be able to speak about their ocean and their way of life, and this is another encouraging moment for me to pursue my goal of becoming a marine scientist and lead my people.

What are your degrees and certifications?

Bachelors of Marine Biology - Unity Environmental College 2023 - Present

What are your hobbies?

Fishing, Snorkeling, Boating, Diving, Cooking, Basketball, Photography/Videography, Drone Flying, Outdoors like working outside and that could relate to fieldwork with my science team from WHOI.

What advice would you give someone who wants to have a career likes yours?

My grandfather always tells me that happiness is the key to success, do whatever makes me happy, find out what do I really enjoy and love and for me its being in the ocean, I have applied that and that's how it brought me here. One thing he always tells me is to be respectful, humble and discipline always.


Evii participated in the following Ocean Exploration Trust expeditions: